National News

How Do You Move a Shark? Very Carefully

Posted May 16, 2018 6:40 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — In the open ocean, the sand tiger shark has been known to migrate more than 1,500 miles.

Moving a shark 100 yards across a construction site at the New York Aquarium to its gleaming new home is a different kind of undertaking altogether: an elaborately choreographed production requiring cranes, trucks, canvas slings and people in wet suits willing to grapple with animals with big scary teeth.

As a misty drizzle fell on Coney Island last Thursday morning, the shark movers gathered for a final safety meeting.

A senior animal keeper, Nicole Ethier, gave out marching orders like a football coach diagraming a complicated play. “Shane and Geoff, you guys will turn around and block the shark,” she said. “If the shark gets spooked and takes off, you’re going to have to start blocking.”

Geoff Gersh, a volunteer diver, was unruffled. He had encountered sharks while diving in the Bahamas. “As long as you don’t agitate it or give it any reason to feel threatened, they don’t want anything to do with you,” he said.

Minutes later, he and his colleagues stood in formation in shin-deep water in a tank of slowly circling sharks: sand tigers, sandbar sharks and a nurse shark. Some of them were nearly 9 feet long. All of them were agitated and had reason to feel threatened.

For protection, the movers had only poster-size rectangles of red plastic called breaker boards.

Two men took their boards and set out across the mostly drained indoor tank, which had been the sharks’ temporary home for three years as the aquarium rebuilds from the damage of Hurricane Sandy. They got on either side of a sand tiger named Otis: gray-brown and sleek, 8 feet 5 inches long, 200 pounds, with a mouth full of curved daggers.

Using their boards to guide him, the movers walked Otis toward the waiting crew. He turned around and swam away. They corralled him again. Otis thrashed and flailed. His tail whacked a mover on the rear. (“It felt like a smack with a wet towel,” the mover, Tim Vourderis, said later.)

Across the pool, six crew members held what looked like an oversize military field stretcher. Someone put a hand on Otis’ tail to steer him into the stretcher. He bucked, crashed, escaped but was finally caught. The movers zipped him up in the stretcher and hooked it to a hoist. A crane raised the stretcher into the air.

Suddenly the zipper at the front of the stretcher popped open, and Otis’ snout flashed out. “Stop! Stop!” yelled the aquarium’s head of animal operations, David DeNardo. “Down, down!”

Eventually, Otis was contained. The stretcher rose into the air again, its contents twisting like Houdini in a sack. It was pulled along an overhead rail that ran out the second-floor doorway.

Down below was a truck with a shark-size box of water on the back. In went the stretcher. The crew undid the straps and zippers. The aquarium’s shark supervisor, Hans Walters, gave the order: “Pull the stretcher out now!” Voilà: shark in a box.

The crew fastened the lid. Walters, a former heavy metal singer, threw the sign of the horns. The truck drove out onto Surf Avenue, past an unsuspecting apartment complex, and turned four blocks later into a back entrance of the aquarium.

Up ahead, past workers pouring concrete and replacing pipes damaged by Hurricane Sandy, lay the destination: a long, sweeping, somewhat shark-shaped new building that houses a permanent exhibit called “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” (or to call it by its full, donor-honoring title, “Donald Zucker and Barbara Hrbek Zucker Ocean Wonders: Sharks!”).

More than a decade and $146 million in the making, “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” will open to the public June 30. It contains 57,500 square feet of galleries and more than 100 species, including big, flapping cownose rays; loggerhead sea turtles; and dozens of sharks: not just sandbars and sand tigers and nurse sharks, but blacktip and whitetip reef sharks, epaulette sharks, horn sharks, pyjama sharks, smooth dogfish, white spotted bamboo sharks, zebra sharks and the improbably adorable carpet sharks called spotted wobbegongs.

The show’s centerpiece is a 350,000-gallon re-creation of the Hudson Canyon, a mile-wide undersea wonder off the coast of New York and New Jersey. “Hudson Canyon’s Edge: Another New York neighborhood teeming with life,” the sign reads. This would be Otis’ new home.

In the tank, smaller fish will coexist with the sharks, often trailing behind them, the aquarium’s director, Jon Forrest Dohlin, explained. “A predator does two things,” he said. “He presents a threat, but he also presents an opportunity: If he’s feeding, there might be something to grab. You just don’t want to be in front of him.”

With so many tasty little fish swimming around, wouldn’t a shark be tempted to eat his way through the exhibit?

“For the most part, they don’t,” Dohlin said. Sharks expend as little energy as possible and know they can count on regular feedings from their handlers. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be an occasional mishap where they take a small fish,” he said. “But it’s rare.”

Upstairs at Ocean Wonders, a crane lifted the shark box to the second floor and set it down on a sunken platform called the medical pool. It was time for Otis’ checkup. Several sets of hands flipped him over on his back. This maneuver puts a shark into a state called tonic immobility. Otis looked almost peaceful, except for the teeth. Walters pushed a plastic hose into Otis’ mouth. It flushed water over his gills — the equivalent of giving a human oxygen.

Walters, a marine biologist, has been working with sharks for nearly 40 years and still has 10 intact fingers.

“You just have to be quick,” he said. “If they start thrashing you pull your hands away.”

The medical team held an ultrasound probe against Otis’ sandpapery flank. They inspected his reproductive gear — “left clasper is erupted, as is the right,” a vet called out approvingly — and drew a semen sample (the aquarium plans to start a breeding program). They took blood. They measured him and weighed him.

The movers deposited him in the pool and winched open a gate at the far end. Otis swam off into the big tank.

Downstairs in the public viewing area, Otis reappeared, trailed by a school of crevalle jack and permit fish. They paraded slowly through the greenlit water, past rocks covered with fake coral and anemones.

One shark down, seven to go.